Improvisation. The freedom to express yourself anytime, anywhere through the notes you play. It’s the ability to rock a solo like your guitar heroes. The Holy Grail we aspire to when we first pick up the guitar.
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Soloing is one of the most satisfying parts of playing music. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Like all music, a good solo is an expression of the player’s emotions. So, what to do if your solos sound stale and uninspired? What does it take to get good, really good, at soloing?
If you’re asking these sorts of questions of your own playing, perhaps it’s time to check your skill set for technique. Here are 11 tips to help take your solos from meh to mind-blowing:
- The matter of music theory. Although many will say you don’t need to know theory in order to play killer solos, knowing at least the basics of music theory—like which notes sound good over which chords (and which ones don’t) and why—will help your efforts immensely. You should know chord theory so you can construct your own chords and inversions as you are playing, and modal theory so you can open up hundreds of new scale options, intervals, and inversions. A little music theory goes a long way to broaden your options.
- Understand the 7 basic elements of music. When you understand rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, texture, timbre and form, it becomes much easier to improvise a guitar solo and create an interesting sound. You will be able to sense when there is an imbalance in the music and work to correct it so that both you and your listener can enjoy the music more.
- Know how to get around the fretboard. It’s one thing to know which notes can be played over which chords, but if you don’t know where to find these notes on the fretboard with ease, you will be left fumbling about the frets in search of them. You need to be able to intuit notes. Learn your fretboard so that you can navigate it blindly.
- Develop your aural skills. Practice ear training to help you identify pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music solely by ear. A well-trained ear gives you the sensitivity and ability to play what you hear in your head and feel in your bones without having to rely on seeing a note. A “good ear” is your best asset.
- Practice your scales. To improve your technique and ability to improvise, keep practicing your scales: pentatonic/blues, major, minor, etc. Learn them thoroughly, in every shape and position. Also, be sure to practice playing in as many different keys as possible. This takes time, but it’s well worth the effort.
- Build your improvisation arsenal. Add more color to your solos with techniques like arpeggio, bending, vibrato, slides, legato, staccato, hammer-ons and pull-offs. The more techniques you have at your disposal, the better able you will be to bring your music to life.
- Teach your guitar to talk. Effective soloing isn’t only what you play, but how you play. Guitar playing is like a conversation. You “speak” with your guitar in the way you phrase your licks using techniques like bends, vibrato, and slides. The nuances of phrasing, how the notes are played, are the most important aspect of creating dynamic guitar solos.
- Let your music breathe. Pause between notes now and then like you do when talking. It’s just as boring to listen to someone play a solo that’s one lick after the other as it is to listen to someone who speaks continually without coming up for air. Slow down a phrase and maybe stop playing all together. The silence in music is just as important as the music itself. Holding a note a little bit longer draws the listener in and creates a sense of anticipation.
- Express emotion. Your playing should tell something, or have an underlying feeling or emotion to it, yet very few people actually practice this. Using only three notes, try to express the deepest sadness you can. Notice what notes you’re using and how you are playing them. Now, try the same exercise, this time expressing calm. Then try to express anger in three notes. Joy. Impatience.
- Play with other musicians. Play with other guitarists, but also play with bass players, drummers, singers, keyboard players, and any other kind of musicians you can find. You’ll discover that when you are playing with other musicians, the dynamics of your playing is completely different. You have to adapt to what other people are doing, react to their music, and give your own interpretation. And when you can’t play with other musicians, play with backing tracks. They never get tired of repeating the same thing.
- Be you. Lastly, when learning to solo, don’t copy someone else. Everyone has a unique voice and perspective, and that’s what needs to come through in your guitar playing. Dig deep and let the music inside you flow out through your fingertips.
Kathy Dickson is a guest writer for GuitarTricks.com.